Her life had been defined by shades of red.
Her first bike had been red. It had taken her everywhere, as far and as fast as she could pedal. It was freedom. She’d raced all through the streets of her small hometown, furiously ringing its bell as she went. She had refused parental attempts to add baskets or handlebar streamers, but acquiesced to the bell. It was, they reminded her, courteous to alert unwary bystanders that she was plowing down the sidewalk behind them.
The small schoolhouse, which every child of the past three generations had attended, was red. Layers of ivy crawled up the red-brown bricks, nearly to the roof in some places. Sometimes the children dared each other to see who might climb the highest. She won, once, her heart pounding in her throat the entire climb.
“Brave Red” was the shade of lipstick she wore on her first date with the boy who had lived down the road for her entire life.
Red roses were in her bouquet at their wedding.
At the moment of her birth, so many years ago on a hot August evening, streaks of crimson painted the sky in a fiery sunset, its warm glow awash over the town that would raise her. That’s where her fiery nature had come from, or so her mother liked to tell her. “Just as you were born, the sunset found you, and kissed you, and when it finally faded into night it left some of itself and its fire with you as a gift – a welcoming into the world.” As a child she had held that story close, a balm against all the pains and fears that come with growing up.
She held it close, too, many years later, when the world as she’d known it fell into chaos.
She didn’t know when exactly they came. No one did. It began as a series of disappearances. Disappearances, though tragic, are hardly out of the ordinary but in small towns they get noticed. Search parties went out and came back without success. For days, these searches bore no fruit. All feared the worst until, one by one, those who had vanished walked back into town, down the main street, one right after the other. They each spouted the same, vague explanations for their disappearances, and those who had waited long nights for their return swallowed the story. She did not care, when her missing husband returned, that he did not seem quite himself.
She did not care until late that night, when from the corner of her eye she saw her husband’s form shift and warp into a towering creature, made up of something darker than the deep shadows of the house, its eyes burning a hellish red in sockets seven feet above the ground.
She reached the handgun in the closet before it reached her, and emptied the full magazine into its chest. That did the trick. The thing that was not her husband howled in agony, sizzled like the dying embers of a fire, and exploded in a cloud of ash. In her shock she accidentally gripped the smoking gun by the barrel.
For the rest of the night she nursed an angry, red burn on the palm of her hand as she huddled behind locked doors and windows, listening to similar cries of terror spring up through the town.
The next morning, red beacons were erected to mark the town’s perimeter – no one allowed past them except the hunting parties tracking down the creatures which, for a reason all their own, had fled after the first attacks. She went with them, though the hunting partied found no creatures. Instead they found the bodies of the disappeared, gaping red chasms in their chests where their hearts had once been.
They came again the second night. Not bothering to hide behind the faces of their victims, their glowing red eyes were all you could see coming. If you could see them coming. She did, that second night. Others on the watch with her were not so lucky.
Red emergency banners scrolling across television screens told her the whole world had suffered similar assaults. Too widespread a crisis for all channels of military and police assistance, volunteer militias were raised up across the globe. Wear red to identify yourselves, the instructions went.
Twenty years later, she still wore the red of the militia.
The last stand began at dusk, when the creatures first begin to show themselves. One final fight, waged all across the world as night fell, to rid the earth once and for all of these ravenous creatures of shadow. For her, it all began in the town that had raised her. It seemed it would all end there too.
Twenty years of luck finally ran out, and she saw the red eyes too late. She took her shot and hit her target, but not before the creature had slashed a hole in her chest.
She lay slumped against the red-brown bricks of her old school, listening to the sounds of the fight beyond. She thought she heard her squadrons gaining the advantage. She hoped so, anyway.
The blood blossoming through her uniform appeared dull and brown as it inched its way down her torso, but when she touched her hand to the wound the blood on her fingertips was bright as a ruby in the pre-dawn light.
She was cold and the pain was fading, a sure sign of the end. In her final lucid moment, the sun crested the horizon and spilled out over what she hoped would be a brand new world for those who might survive. As the gentle heat of it brushed her face, she thought only one thing:
I give back your gift to me. I’ve used it the best I could. Let it light on someone else. Give them the strength to carry on.